Johnson and Hunt join criticism of Trump attacks on Democrats

Rowena Mason and Patrick Wintour
Composite: Rex/Reuters/EPA/AP

Boris Johnson and Jeremy Hunt have joined Theresa May in condemning Donald Trump’s tweets suggesting four Democratic congresswomen should “go back and help fix” their “broken and crime-infested” countries, but all held back from branding him a racist.

The two Conservative leadership hopefuls made clear their criticism of Trump in a Sun and TalkRadio leadership debate, echoing May’s comments that they were “completely unacceptable”.

Asked for his views, Johnson, the runaway favourite to succeed May as prime minister next week, said: “Relations between the UK and US are incredibly important. But if you are the leader of a great multiracial, multicultural country you simply cannot use that kind of language about sending people back to where they came from. It went out decades and decades ago and thank heavens for that. It’s totally unacceptable.”

Pressed on whether he agreed with May, Hunt said: “Yes I do. I have three half-Chinese children and if anyone ever said to them, ‘Go back to China’ I would be utterly appalled. It is totally un-British to do that. So I hope that would never happen in this country.”

They were each asked whether Trump should be called a racist because of his comments but Hunt, the foreign secretary, and Johnson, a former foreign secretary, both declined to use that term.

Earlier, May took the unusual step of commenting on US domestic politics after Trump made reference to the outspoken Democratic congresswomen, only one of whom is foreign-born.

The president’s remarks were attacked as explicitly racist towards Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, Ayanna Pressley, Rashida Tlaib and Ilhan Omar, who was born in Somalia.

The speaker of the US House of Representatives, Nancy Pelosi, denounced Trump’s “xenophobic comments meant to divide our nation”, while the four congresswomen accused him of trying to appeal to white nationalists.

Downing Street criticised Trump’s comments but stopped short of branding him a racist. “Her view is that the language which was used to refer to the women was completely unacceptable,” the prime minister’s official spokesman said.

Trump was highly critical of May last week, saying she had made a “mess” of Brexit, following leaked diplomatic cables from the UK ambassador to Washington that described him as inept and insecure.

Johnson, who was condemned for his failure to defend the ambassador, Sir Kim Darroch, is keen to rebuild the relationship with the US after the serious diplomatic row.

Johnson has claimed he said nothing that should have been a factor in the ambassador’s decision to quit, but that is not an assessment shared in Whitehall or by Darroch.

Trump had condemned Darroch and sought to ostracise him in an attempt to punish the envoy and apparently to drive him from his job.

Related: No 10 says Trump's 'go back home' tweet to congresswomen 'completely unacceptable' - live news

The latest row about Trump’s remarks is a test case of how far the next prime minister will put what they regard as the national economic interest and the pursuit of the special relationship ahead of defending essential British values and principles.

There is a fear that with Brexit imminent, an increasingly isolated UK will have to turn more towards a Trump-led administration in its search for key allies.

May’s condemnation of Trump is a further sign the prime minister is willing to loosen the shackles in the final days of her premiership and say what she thinks.

The Scottish Conservative leader, Ruth Davidson, said earlier that May was right and “both men vying to be her successor should say so”.

Scotland’s first minister, Nicola Sturgeon, said the president’s comments were “not OK and diplomatic politeness should not stop us saying so, loudly and clearly”.

Nadhim Zahawi, the MP for Stratford-on-Avon and a supporter of Johnson, said the UK should not interject into American politics, but described the language used as inappropriate. “It is not language I would use. I am condemning it,” he told the BBC.

“It is domestic US policy. Ultimately, if we do this [interject], we will give Donald Trump the right to intervene in our politics any time he wants. That is not where we want to be. This is our greatest ally. The president of the US has to be someone with whom the prime minister can work, and if we are going to start behaving in this way and attack them all the time then they have every right to do the same back to us.”

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